Buying Smart; Scanning Options For Negatives And Slides; Bring Out Your Shoeboxes!

Yes, I know. Your best and very most favorite photo is one you haven’t taken yet. The abbreviation for this Buying Smart column is “BS” for a reason. Ignoring the body of work you created before you got your first digital camera is pure BS.

I am the only one permitted to BS on this page, so you’d better rethink your answer.

Unless you were born after 1990 (and maybe even if you weren’t) you have a box full of negatives and slides somewhere, and some of them are pretty damn good. And you’ve thought about scanning the better ones “one of these days” but never got around to it because, well—here comes the BS again.

For all practical purposes, you can narrow your film scanning options down to four choices. There are three types of scanners: drum, flat-bed, and dedicated film scanner. The fourth alternative is to have your film scanned by a professional lab.

Drum scanners are de rigueur for advertising agencies, commercial art studios, and service bureaus. But you can scratch this one off your list unless you print your own money. Drum scanners are comparatively large, relatively slow, and prohibitively expensive. And in the opinion of many professionals, drum scanners do not deliver their full potential unless the transparency is wet mounted—a tedious and frequently messy process.

They do, however, lead the field in the most crucial performance areas, and it’s worthwhile to use them as a yardstick by which other scanning methods can be measured. Drum scanners deliver the highest resolution. High resolution means big prints—and large file sizes. If it’s big prints (in the 20x30” range or larger) that you’re after, then worry about resolution. If you’re looking for image files that are roughly equivalent (in resolution) to what you can produce with a Canon EOS 50D (4752x3168), then you’ll need a scanner that can produce a minimum of about 3400dpi (dots per inch) and that means you have more realistic options available.

Flat-bed scanners have gotten a bad rap because most of the early models were optimized for scanning paper prints. And most were grossly overrated. Some had impressive specifications and were hyped to produce very high resolution numbers, but the empirical quality—that which you could observe with the human eye—was abysmal. Part of the problem was attributed to focus error—flat-beds, for the most part, do not actually focus on the film plane. But the real truth is this: flat-bed scanners and multifunctional printer/scanner/copier devices are intended for occasional use as an amateur film/slide scanner. They are not designed to be used for expert professional-level results. If you have only a few slides to scan and will be working with the resultant images on your PC monitor and as 4x6 prints, these combo scanners will deliver. Otherwise, step up.

There are some exceptions. The CanoScan 8800F produces outstanding results, scans up to 12 negatives at a time, and delivers resolution of up to 4800x9600dpi. For less than $200 it comes with Adobe’s Photoshop Elements and Canon’s one-year warranty. The Epson Perfection V750-M Pro ($850) delivers up to 6400dpi optical resolution (12,800x12,800 interpolated) and is capable of wet mount for improved scratch and dust suppression. It will scan 24 frames of 35mm film (or 12 mounted slides) without reloading. The V750-M Pro comes with Photoshop Elements and LaserSoft Imaging’s SilverFast Ai 6 software applications.

If you have a large number of negatives or slides, or if obtaining the best possible quality is of the utmost importance to you, buy a dedicated film scanner. Film scanners are fast, produce the highest fidelity image reproduction, and usually include a host of built-in image restoration firmware and hardware applications.

The Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 ED, priced at a few bucks over a cool $1000, is a popular choice for several good reasons. It can scan a 35mm negative in about 20 seconds at 4000dpi true optical resolution. It also has a pre-scan mode that’s much faster and can do multisampling for increased quality. Typical of the best scanners, the Coolscan 5000 ED uses a 16-bit A/D converter. When a slide or negative is scanned, analog data is converted to digital by an A/D (Analog-to-Digital) converter. A/D converters differ in the number of bits they use to perform the operation. The higher the number, the more shades or gradations of each color are produced. A 12-bit converter, for example, delivers 4096 shades of a color. That’s good. A 16-bit converter delivers 16,384. That’s more like it.

In terms of image restoration, the Nikon Coolscan 5000 ED has the best of the best—and these are worthy of note because they represent what you probably won’t get if you buy some other sort of scanner to scan your hoard of slides. With the Coolscan 5000 ED you get Digital ICE—Image Correction & Enhancement (removes defects and hides scratches on the surface of the film without losing any details), Digital ROC—Restoration Of Color (restores faded color of old films or slides), and Digital GEM—Grain Equalization & Management (reduces the appearance of film grain). It also includes Digital DEE—Dynamic Exposure Extender, which compensates for both underexposure and overexposure and helps reveal details hidden in shadows and highlights. (Editor’s Note: Digital ICE will not work with Kodachrome or black-and-white film.)

Of course, as indicated earlier, there is a fourth option. If you are apathetic about do-it-yourself activities, have only a handful of slides to scan, or—on the other end of the spectrum—lack the patience necessary to scan a few hundred rolls of film, turn to a professional lab. Prices vary based on film size, quantity, resolution, and other factors, so shop around and test different labs by sending them just a few slides to scan until you figure out who is who.

If you are currently shooting film and want to have it scanned into digital files, look for a lab that will soup the film and scan the negatives for one price. For less than $7 per 36-exposure roll (19¢ per shot) Mpix ( will develop and scan your color negative (C-41 process) film. Film is scanned at 1228x1818 to create 6.4MB JPEGs—so you may want to scan the best shots later at a higher resolution. Mpix posts thumbnails on their website where you can view and order prints (if desired). Processed negatives are shipped back to you separated from your print or CD order to avoid damage.

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